Trailing the Arizona Cardinals, 3-0, with 4:48 left in the third quarter, Jets head coach Rex Ryan made his biggest move of the 2012 season: He changed quarterbacks, subbing third-string quarterback Greg McElroy for starter Mark Sanchez.
Sanchez, now in his fourth year as the Jets' starter, had never been taken out of an NFL game until this afternoon. But as No. 6 admitted afterward, today just wasn't his day. He threw three interceptions on his first nine passes and was sacked three times, all in the first half. With No. 2 QB Tim Tebow deactivated due to his broken ribs, McElroy was Ryan's choice.
"I just felt that at that time, I thought I needed to make a change and that's why I made it," Ryan said following the 7-6 win this afternoon. "I'll always do what I think's in the best interest of our team."
The QB change electrified the crowd at MetLife Stadium and before McElroy could even take his first snap, something positive transpired as Arizona safety Adrian Wilson was called for an offside penalty.
"It's tough to kind of gauge the energy, obviously," McElroy said of when he entered the game. "I didn't have a decibel meter where I could tell like what the crowd noise was. It was fun. We were having a good time. It was exciting to get a shot and go in there."
On McElroy's first snap, he handed off to running back Bilal Powell, who rushed for 17 yards — his long run of the season. Three plays later, facing third-and-6, the QB hit rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill for an 8-yard completion for the first down. Later in the drive McElroy scrambled to his right, picking up 3 yards and getting 15 additional yards tacked on as Arizona DT Dan Williams was flagged for unnecessary roughness, hitting the QB after he'd stepped out of bounds.
The Jets then ran three straight times and opened the fourth quarter on the Cardinals' 1. On the first play of the final period, McElroy rolled out off of play action to his right before finding TE Jeff Cumberland uncovered in the end zone for the 1-yard score. The TD pass was the first of McElroy's pro career.
"It was a bit of a floater," he said of the scoring pass. "It was a run-first option, and I almost didn't want to throw it. But I just had to let it go. Jeff did a great job selling the run, and Brandon Moore did a fantastic job getting out in front and trying to secure the edge. It was just great execution, great call by Coach Sparano. I was real fortunate and luckily we were able to get it."
What impressed Ryan most about his third-string QB's performance was the clock management he displayed.
"He came from a great program," Ryan said of Alabama. "He's smart, he knows how to handle that clock, and that's what he did. He does a tremendous job of it."
Winning a national championship with the Crimson Tide under head coach Nick Saban, McElroy has played in big games and performed under bright lights. From his perspective, Saban and Ryan are very alike, which has made his transition to the NFL much easier.
"I'm very, very grateful to play for a coach in the NFL that is so similar to what I've been used to and to what I've grown up in," McElroy said. "I think just managing the game, it's often overused to a certain extent, but it's so important and it's something that I take great pride in and something I'd like to continue to try to do well."
Ryan didn't say whether McElroy will be the Jets' starter next week when they face Jacksonville. Instead he stated that he believes in all three of his team's quarterbacks.
"Again, I have confidence in Mark, I have confidence in Greg, I have confidence in Tim," the coach said.
McElroy's "relief victory" was the first time a Jets QB came in for the starter and guided a come-from-behind win. That year, it was Glenn Foley who replaced Neil O'Donnell, leading the Green & White to back-to-back wins against New England and Baltimore.
McElroy finished his NFL debut 5-of-7 passing for 29 yards, one TD and four carries for 5 rushing yards, including two kneeldowns to end the game. Following the TD drive, he led the Jets on three more series, and although none of them produced points like the first one, the final outcome was everything Jets Nation had been hoping for: a much-needed victory.
"To come in and play the way he did is so encouraging," DT Mike DeVito said.
"I felt really comfortable," McElroy said. "I understood the game plan and I obviously had a great supporting cast and had those guys making plays for us and getting open and the offensive line giving me tons of time. Honestly, those other 10 guys made my job a lot easier, to be honest with you. I felt comfortable, though.
"Obviously I didn't get any reps with the offense this week, but I watched Mark. I always took those mental reps, and that was always so important for me, just to take those mental reps, because you never know when you're going to get called upon. I just really kind of learned a lot from watching and hopefully it will pay a lot of dividends going forward."